Presents a crucial piece of the Big Star puzzle.
The architect of Big Star’s thoroughly documented, chaotic Third, Alex Chilton is often considered the prime mover behind the power-pop legends. But before that fateful splintering, the less heralded Chris Bell was just as integral to the band’s sound. With three volumes of Complete Third under its belt and the six-album boxed set The Complete Chris Bell on the horizon, Omnivore is leaving no stone unturned in its repackaging of the Big Star catalog. So while this music is worth hearing, keep this caveat in mind: Looking Forward, which will be incorporated into the forthcoming Bell box, collects material that die-hard fans will already own.
In fact, as early as the album’s third track, Looking Forward may seem redundant even to casual fans. An early version of “My Life is Right” recorded by Bell’s early band Rock City is only a few inflections away from the version on #1 Record. Likewise, Rock City’s “Try Again,” heard in a mix made for the 2012 documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, isn’t that far removed from the Big Star version. The Rock City sessions were previously released on CD in 2003, so if you’ve been following the story since then you already own nearly half of this set.
Still, the Rock City material is as vital as any power pop of the era, with tracks like “I Think It’s Time to Say Goodbye” typical of the group’s strengths, a solid Raspberries-cum-James Gang rock that had yet to transcend its influences. Looking Forward demonstrates the kind of crunchy folk rock and Who-inspired harder numbers that Bell and his pre-Big Star bandmates made.
The accompanying booklet’s oral history may perhaps be the album’s real coup. With Bell and Chilton both gone, figures like engineers John Fry and Terry Manning and drummer Steve Rhea comb their memories for details of sessions that happened more than half a century ago. Rhea, for one, recalls the mindset of the band Christmas Future, formed shortly after he met Bell at Memphis University High School in 1967: “We would consider it a success if we got thrown off the stage.”
Although the set is primarily credited to Bell, most of Looking Forward features Bell as a sideman. The Beatles’ pastiche “Feeling High,” credited to The Wallabys, was the brainchild of Alan Palmore, who barely even remembers Bell’s stint with the band. It’s a more explicit Beatles homage than Big Star ever ventured, a George Harrison-like track that suggests Guided By Voices as much as the Fab Four. Yet the presence of Bell is unmistakable on “All I See is You,” credited to Icewater; you can hear the distinct guitar sound that fueled “I Am The Cosmos” fully formed. An unreleased demo titled “Psychedelic Stuff” is pure Bell, albeit in the musical thrall of the Move and Syd Barrett. The most intriguing selection may be a backing track titled “Oh My Soul.” It’s not, as you might suspect, the same song that opened Radio City, although it’s in the same rocking spirit; it suggests that Bell’s contribution to Big Star’s second album was stronger than has been assumed.
Longtime Big Star collectors may be used to repurchasing material they already own, even on official releases. Looking Forward presents a crucial piece of the Big Star puzzle, and anyone coming to this music fresh will find it enjoyable, if not as essential as the canonic studio releases. By all means, track down that Rock City CD, and if you don’t already own I Am the Cosmos, the forthcoming standalone reissue is essential. But this one is really for completists only.